IT was a symbolic barrier – and in Berlin an all-pervading physical one – between the democratic West and the Communist East.
The world’s most infamous wall was also an irresistible target – a vast linear canvas – for exponents of graffiti art, political sloganeering and comic relief.
It wasn’t exactly legal but during the latter stages of its 28-year existence, after the Berlin Wall was raised in height to 14ft, it was daubed “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world.”
At least it did on the western side: the eastern wall, just across no-man’s land, was un-affectionately known as “death strip” where you’d likely get a bullet in the head from a grim-faced Eastern Bloc guard had you strayed anywhere near it swinging a bucket of paint or a spray-can.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the dismantling of the 87-mile long Berlin Wall and all sorts of shindigs are in the pipeline to commemorate what was almost certainly the most momentous global event of the Eighties signaling, as it did, the collapse of the Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe.
At every mention of the structure, however, the same image flashes through my mind.
It is 1989, a few months before the wall came tumbling down, and several visitors from Swindon are nursing hangovers after a night of foaming steins while ambling alongside the wall admiring the Jackson Pollock-like squiggles and scrawls that comprise an endless screed of graffiti.
Some of the slogans, at least the ones in English that we can understand, are quite funny or thought provoking: “This wall has bad karma,” “Long live the Dalai Lama,” “Freedom for Transylvania,” “I wish I’d never been to Eton.”
And then amidst a spaghetti-like riot of scribbles and doodles and in vibrant blood red paint too, it jumps straight out at us … “Swindon Town FC.”
Not that I condone graffiti or anything, but hey!
A blown-up version of the photo I managed to take while grinning from ear-to-ear and heartily admiring the author’s artistry and audacity has been hanging on another wall, the one in my basement, ever since.
Here it is pictured above
Talking about the weather
FATHER of seven George Cook, a transporter of milk by trade, was a hardy and determined soul who was not about to be thwarted by the elements, even if the driving snow was, by our standards, extraordinary.
On his way home to Walcot he was steering his horse and cart down Drove Road from Old Town where the whole shebang inadvertently slid into a 20ft bank of snow.
His startled cries for help were heard by residents of Belle Vue Road who found George “up to his neck” in snow while his horse and vehicle were also completely embedded.
They managed to pull them all out and George, having shaken great lumps of snow from himself, resolved with steely determination, to press on home.
But he never made it to his cottage near Walcot Farm. “Although every effort was made, by digging away the drift and searching the fields to find him, no trace could be found for three days,” it was reported.
Eventually his frozen body was found in a ditch, just two fields from home in what is now the Walcot housing estate.
Let’s face it, complaining about the weather is a national pastime. And there has been some pretty miserable, soggy and fierce stuff to moan about of late.
But next time you see the trees bending in the wind, the lawn reduced to a quagmire or face a storm-sodden walk to buy a pint of milk imagine what it was like to have been in Swindon during the early weeks of 1881.
Terror… tragedy… disaster… misery: no less than 20 people – including unfortunate George – were killed within 20 miles of the town as blizzards reached a fearsome peak between January 18-20 after several days of intense cold and black frost.
With the aid of a retentive memory that he claimed to be as good as anyone’s from Swindon during the preceding 75 years, historian Frederick Large (1852-1934) graphically recalled the appalling events half-a-century later.
In his 1931 book, A Swindon Retro-spect 1855-1930, Large wrote of the “phenomenal” conditions which swept the country but were felt “with special severity” on the Wiltshire and Berkshire Downs that skirt Swindon.
“Well do I remember that memorable time with its terrible death roll. Situated as Swindon is, the effect of the keen and icy wind were felt by the inhabitants in the fullest degree.”
He wrote of the “piecing gale bearing with it the frozen snow almost blinding foot passengers” and that “none but the more courageous could summon the courage to face the fury.”
People’s eyes became glazed with “spectacles formed of ice,” he wrote, while “large clouds of blinding snow” completely blocked roads and hedges (Swindon being predominantly rural at the time) Heading off the downs to his home in Bishopstone Charles Beckett lost his way, stumbled to the ground and never recovered; his frozen corpse being found several hours later.
Mail cart driver Charles Everett was on his way from Hungerford to Swindon when he abandoned his conveyance and sought refuge in a cowshed, only to freeze to death.
Edmund Butler was discovered “insensible” by the road-side near Highworth in his ‘social’ – a comfy horse-drawn carriage – but never regained consciousness.
Farm labourer George Head, 22, was found under the snow by a search party two days after trying to make it home from Barbury Farm.
A powerful driver of carts named Farr, 6ft 3ins tall, was tragically undaunted by the swirling blizzard as he made his way towards Swindon from Devizes.
Carrying his young son and a teenage “under-carter” he was convinced that his sturdy team of cart horses could reach their destination near Avebury.
Implored by a policeman to seek refuge Farr responded: “God, man nor weather has ever stopped me on a journey yet.”
Barely alive, he was found the following day but expired hours later.
It was several days before the bodies of the two boys were found alongside those of the four horses.
Another carter Thomas Patient lost his horses in blinding snow near Shrivenham and made a valiant effort to carry to safety his under-carter William Thatcher, 11, who had become numb.
He wrapped the lad in his own coat and staggered some distance with the boy on his back.
“In spite of these noble exertions the boy died from severe cold,” reported Large.
Patient, at least, survived to tell a tale that was later commemorated in a lengthy poem entitled “Too True.”